Jacqueline Coombe is a freelance writer specialising in business development, marketing, and career development content.
If you’re looking for a fast, challenging, and full-body workout, it’s time to talk circuit training. This highly flexible approach to working out ensures that you never get bored in your fitness journey and that your fitness improves continuously, changing as your fitness goals change.
Let’s take a look at what circuit training is, the main types of circuit training, why it’s so good for fitness improvement, how to get started, and how to perform it safely.
What is circuit training?
Circuit training is a combination of exercises (usually 5 - 10) performed with short rest periods in between. Exercises are repeated a set number of times, or each exercise can be prescribed a certain amount of time. Exercises are typically referred to as “stations” - you visit each station in a repeating order, creating a circuit map. One circuit is when all chosen exercises have been completed, and multiple circuits can be performed in one training session.
The benefits of circuit training
The main benefit of circuit training is its adaptability and boredom-buster approach to working out. There are endless ways to customise, modify and progress a circuit training program so that you reach your fitness goals in record time. Circuit training is highly personalised, and can be modified to give you exactly what you want. Covering fitness fundamentals and much more, it can be altered to a range of different groups and special populations.
A circuit can be developed for cardiovascular improvement, strength, mobility, sports enhancement…the list goes on. Circuit training also doesn’t require a huge amount of time or space and circuits don’t have to be overly complicated.
From a practical point of view, circuit training can be easy to set up. Circuits can incorporate weights, kettlebells, boxes, and other pieces of equipment, but they can also be built around bodyweight exercises.
From a personal training perspective, circuits can be a fantastic way to get multiple people involved. They can be adapted to any number of people and to any physical need. They can be fun, and engaging and can foster a competitive edge that naturally pushes participants a little further in each session.
Circuit training can:
- Improve muscular endurance
- Increase strength and muscle growth
- Improve heart health
- Burn calories more efficiently
- Offer a full-body workout
- Reduce time spent on training
- Enhance exercise adherence
- Promote weight loss
- Improve mood
- Be designed for all difficulty levels
Another big benefit is the afterburn effect, which allows your body to stay in fat-burning mode long after a workout is finished. This process revs up your metabolism and torches calories for up to 24 hours after exercise.
The main types of circuit training
There are unlimited ways to structure your circuit training workouts. For example, you can create a:
The work/rest time ratio can be cutomised to suit the fitness level. For example, a timed circuit for a beginner might involve 30 seconds of exercise and 30 seconds of rest. For an athlete, it might involve 80 seconds of exercise and 20 seconds of rest.
Similar to a timed circuit, you push yourself to complete as many reps during your ‘work’ time. The time period for each round stays the same, but you try to increase the number of reps with each round.
This type of circuit is great for groups of people with different fitness levels. Instead of using timed stations, you instead use reps. The fittest of the group may perform 20 repetitions of an exercise, the intermediate group 15, and the beginner group 10 repetitions.
This chooses exercises that are specific to your sport or exercises that emphasize a particular part of your body.
How to create a circuit training program
Figuring out how to create an effective circuit training program may seem a little daunting, but it’s easier than you might think.
Step 1. Decide on your goals
Several key principles can be applied when identifying your overall fitness goal. Your goal should be specific, realistic and measurable, and in line with your lifestyle and daily actions. Regularly assessing your progress will also help you to make the most of the flexibility that comes with circuit training and it will keep you motivated and challenged.
Step 2. Set a time limit
Knowing how much time you have to complete a training workout will help you to determine how many circuits you’ll need to complete and how hard you’ll need to work. Generally speaking, the shorter the time allocated to your workout, the harder you’ll need to work.
Circuit training should never be done for too long - that is, no more than 60 minutes.
Step 3. Factor in rest
The amount of time you rest between circuits plays a significant role in how you feel and how much your workout changes your body. If you don't rest long enough, you burn out quicker. If you rest too long, your workouts lose their intensity.
With circuit training, rest periods are minimised as much as possible. This allows for a highly efficient workout that frees up time for additional exercise. Circuit training alternates the body parts you’re working on at each station, meaning there’s no need (or very minimal need) to rest in between. Your arms get a break during squats and your legs get a rest during sit-ups.
Step 4. Choose your exercises
A good circuit training session will work the whole body. This means a mix of the upper body, lower body, compound, and maximum effort cardio exercises.
If you want to keep the whole circuit simple, you can choose one exercise from each group and then repeat these every round. The next time you work out, you can choose a different exercise to repeat.
If you want to mix it up, you can choose a different exercise in each group to perform each round. This keeps your circuit interesting and ensures you work every muscle.
Ideas for upper body exercises
Tip: Pick upper body exercises you are capable of doing and ones that are going to be the most effective at targeting the muscle group you want to tone.
- Shoulder press
- Bent-over row
- Dumbbell pullover
- Standing Dumbbell curl
- Triceps dip
- Push Up
- Bear crawl
- Russian Twist
- Overhead triceps extension
- Lat pulldown
- Inverted row
Ideas for lower body exercises
Tip: Pick an exercise based on the equipment you have. If you’re at the gym you’ll have access to more exercise options, but there’s still plenty you can do with just your body.
- Forward lunge or walking lunge
- Calf raise
- Sumo squat
- Hamstring curl on a Swiss ball
- Reverse lunge
- Hip trust
- Weighted step up
- Side lunge
- Ice skaters
Ideas for compound exercises
Tip: Burn fat by really getting your heart rate up.
- Mountain climbers
- Thruster (squat to shoulder press)
- Single arm kettlebell swing
- Reverse lunge with bicep curl
- Front lunge with twist
- High plank T-spine rotation
- Back squat
- Wall sit
- Pull ups/chin ups
- Face pulls
Ideas for cardio exercises
Tip: Go really hard for this part of the circuit. The more you give, the more you’ll gain.
- Jump rope
- Stair climbing
- Jumping Jacks
- High knees
- Squat jump
- Ball slam
- Plank ups
- Tuck jumps
Step 5: Put it all together
Let’s say you have 30 minutes in which to dedicate to completing your circuit training session. (Note, this should not include warm-up and cool-down time.)
Option 1: Select to spend one minute at five different stations and repeat the circuit six times. This totals 30 minutes.
- Station 1: Upper Body
- Station 2: Lower Body
- Station 3: Compound
- Station 4: Cardio
- Station 5: Rest
The goal for your working stations is to complete as many reps as possible. Stay focused and work hard for the entire minute before moving on to the next. When it comes to your rest station, really rest. You’ve earned it! Let your heart rate come down, get a drink, and make sure your music is ready for the next round.
Option 2: Select to spend one minute at each station and then 30 seconds rest before moving on to the next. Repeat the circuit five times.
- Station 1: Upper Body (perform twice, rest twice)
- Station 2: Lower Body (perform twice, rest twice)
- Station 3: Compound (perform twice, rest twice)
- Station 4: Cardio (perform twice, rest twice)
What makes circuit training better than other workout options?
The quick pace and alternating nature of circuit training place a unique type of stress on the body, which differs from normal exercise activities, like weight training and cardiovascular conditioning. Circuit training prepares the body in an all-around way, conditioning your entire body.
Research continuously shows that circuit training offers numerous benefits, given that it simultaneously develops cardiovascular fitness and strength. Circuit training can:
- Increase aerobic oxygen consumption and VO2 max, resulting in greater stamina and overall fitness
- Overload muscles for improved endurance and strength
- Demand more calories than traditional cardio or strength training alone
- Improve body composition and higher metabolism
- Increase lean body mass (more metabolically active than fat)
- Work the body in new ways and stimulate additional progress and better results
- Yield a greater return on the time invested in exercise
- Complement all other workouts
Circuit training precautions and safety guidelines
Circuit training is a fantastic form of exercise, but as with any exercise program, it’s important to consider safety and form. Because of the timed nature of exercises, it’s easy to push yourself harder than you might normally, which can result in sore muscles and joints and an increased likelihood of injury.
Circuit training places different demands on the mind and body, so give yourself time to adapt and start off slow. Warm-up and cool-down are crucial, so never start a circuit without having stretched. Have fun, do your research and get designing your circuits!
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
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